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Nurturance or Protection: Understanding the Motivations of Intimate Partners in Conflict

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution by Nick Redding

The idea that individuals approach relationship conflicts with varying motivations is not new. One way of understanding intimate partner motivation is highlighted by Regulatory Focus Theory, which proposes that there are two different approaches an individual can take in any given situation: 1) a promotion focus, where they are motivated to pursue growth, advancement, and gain, or 2) a prevention focus, where they are primarily motivated to maintain security, avoid loss, and minimize risk.

A recent study investigated the role of regulatory focus for romantic partners in conflict. In a romantic relationship, while each partner may strive for a satisfying relationship, the motivational reasons for doing so may be quite different. One partner may be motivated by the growth and nurturance provided by the relationship, while the other may be motivated more by the emotional support, security and protection. This study found that partners with a promotion focus saw their partners to be more supportive and less distancing when discussing a relationship conflict, whereas partners with a prevention focus saw their partners as more distant and less supportive, resulting in lower satisfaction with the conflict.

The study highlights an important finding for mediators and counselors working with couples in conflict: understand what drives them. If a partner is motivated to seek growth and nurturance, they are likely to find their partner to be more supportive in conflict. But, if a partner is motivated more to maintain security and avoid loss, they will likely feel threatened in conflict as they will tend to see their partner as more distant and less supportive. This study makes it clear that understanding the general motivational tendencies of each partner in a conflict is important, and should be considered when intervening to help the couple. There are simple assessment measures available that can provide this type of information (see Lockwood, et. al., 2002). Understanding each of the parties’ primary concerns can have a huge impact when choosing the best approach toward resolution.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist, 52, 1280–1300.

Lockwood, P., Jordan, C. H., & Kunda, Z. (2002). Motivation by positive or negative role models: Regulatory focus determines who will best inspire us. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83, 854–864. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.83.4.854.

Winterhead, H.A., & Simpson, J.A. (2011, August 15). Seeking security or growth: A regulatory focus perspective on motivations in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Advance online publication.


Nick Redding

Nick Redding is a doctoral student in the Social-Organizational Psychology department at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a Project Coordinator for the Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity (AC4) at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Before coming to Columbia, he spent two years living in South Africa as a U.S.… MORE >

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